Icons: Bread Winners

How the mighty Amoroso roll won Philly’s daily bread a seat at the national table.

Fifteen years ago, Bob and Andrea Levey left Philadelphia for Orange County, California. They enjoyed the warmer weather and lower taxes and were generally pleased with their new home. Except for the food. Apparently, Californians were too busy rationing cholesterol to pay much attention to how things taste.

“Nobody knew how to make a good sandwich,” says Bob. “There were so many people moving from Philly to California, and so few cheesesteak places, let alone one that did it the right way.”

Bob had worked the grill in his uncle's Juniata pizzeria and decided he'd show his new neighbors the right way by opening the first Philly's Best Authentic Cheesesteak and Hoagie Shop. He knew his fellow expats were a streetwise bunch, quick to judge and slow to trust. So Philly's Best would broadcast its hometown credentials in a language we've all been speaking since birth, the language of brands. Beneath a canopy of Eagles, Phillies and Flyers memorabilia, customers could pair their authentic steaks with Wise chips, Tastykakes and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, and wash it all down with a bottle of Frank's Black Cherry Wishniak soda. In the end, however, this all proved to be little more than packaging. To a true Philadelphian, the store's test wasn't soda or candy or chips.

A few days after Philly's Best opened, a car full of hungry Philadelphians pulled up and sent forth a 15-year-old girl, an envoy, to see if this Philly's Best was for real. The girl wasn't swayed by the smell of frying onions or the cans of Cheez Whiz standing at the ready. Only one word could convince her that these steaks were from where she was. She marched right up to the register and asked:

“What bread you use?”

“Amoroso's hearth-baked Italian rolls,” Bob replied, pointing to the tricolor sign on his wall with the three shoots of spring wheat.

Who else? Like anyone who's grown up in Philly during the past 40 years, Bob knew “Amoroso's” and “rolls” go together like “Ivory” and “soap.” When he went grocery-shopping as a kid, his mom would tell him to grab four or five Amoroso's torpedoes from the deli-counter bin at Penn Fruit, and fix him a ham and cheese hoagie as soon as they got home. On Sunday nights, Andrea's parents would prepare a traditional Italian dinner of spaghetti and homemade gravy, accompanied by a basket of warm Amoroso club rolls. It cost Philly's Best an extra 10 percent to have the rolls shipped frozen from the East Coast, but it was well worth seeing the suspicion disappear from the girl's face when Bob said the magic word: Amoroso's. The Leveys were rewarded with a carload of customers. Andrea soon realized the Amoroso's sign was a beacon, advertising the kind of no-frills hospitality you don't find too often on the West Coast.

Which makes the humble Amoroso bun — also known as “the bread winner,” “the roll that makes Philly sandwiches world-famous,” and, when decked out in a top hat and cane, “the leading roll” — much more than just a piece of bread. It's a scrapbook that holds the city's memories, a passport that makes its traveling citizens known to one another, and a monument that's stood firm through the city's leanest decades. It is arguably the most successful Philadelphia brand to never leave town, and certainly the one that has benefited the most from its reputation for authenticity. So what is Amoroso's recipe for such success? Is it making bread today using the same authentic methods as a century ago? Is there some secret ingredient in the recipe? Is it the Philly water? There's another possibility: that the Leveys, their customers, and all the rest of us have been won over not so much by the bread itself as by the world we believe it harks back to.

WHEN VINCENZO Amoroso founded his bakery in 1904, he turned out scarcely 100 loaves an hour. That original bread was like a toasted cracker wrapped around a pillow of feathery crumbs, a burnt, brittle shell protecting the soft, moist inside, or mollica, as it used to be called. This was the Italian bread South Philly served on its table, the bread that hawkers brought to back doors in the evenings as the men were returning home from the factories. The crust was too tough to slice, so you broke it, ripped into it with your hands, which made a sound like a boot breaking through snow. The bakers arose hours before dawn to begin the painstaking process of mixing the dough, forming the loaves by hand, letting them rise, then feeding them into the oven with a long wooden paddle. What with minding the store and making deliveries, it wasn't unusual for bakers to work 16-hour days. (Some — like 71-year-old Raymond Lanci, on Jackson between 17th and 18th — still do, working through the dawn and taking catnaps in front of the morning news.) It was a hard living, putting the labor of an artisan into a product that lasted one day and sold dirt-cheap, and could just as easily be bought from the guy on the next corner down. Vincenzo was just one out of hundreds of these neighborhood bakers, all making bread of roughly equal quality. A century later, most of Vincenzo's competitors have long since gone out of business, done in by the automobile, the suburbs, and the subsequent end of daily neighborhood bread. A few South Philly old-timers like Lanci have adhered to the old way and survived; a handful of these — including Joe Cacia and Louis Sarcone — have made themselves into neighborhood institutions, symbols of tradition and continuity, and so achieved a modest level of financial success.

And then there is Amoroso's, which has done much more than survive. It was the first Philly bakery to make a passably authentic Italian roll on an industrial scale, and then figure out how to sell it on an industrial scale. Its bread still commands the same fierce loyalty as a beloved neighborhood baker's despite being pumped out at a rate of a quarter million rolls a night at Amoroso's massive brick-and-concrete West Philly plant. The flour arrives by railcar and is poured by the ton into sealed silos, then passes through the labyrinthine building on long steel belts that give the bread — “the product,” as everyone calls it — a brisk 15-­minute bake in one of five 100-foot natural gas ovens, and carry it straight to the packing floor. There, the rolls are counted, bagged, and loaded onto 90 white Amoroso's trucks, or “mobile billboards,” as marketing director Charley Mallowe calls them, kept spotless through twice-weekly power washings. From there, rolls arrive fresh on the morning they were baked, at supermarkets, cafeterias, pizzerias and stadium concessionaires all over the Delaware Valley. Once the dough rises, the rest of the process, including the truck-­loading, can be accomplished in less than an hour without the bread once making contact with a human hand.

Just off the factory floor is the office of Leonard Amoroso Jr., the third-­generation Amoroso's patriarch; his father got him started in the business as a boy, packing and delivering orders. Now he oversees some 385 employees and about $40 million in annual revenue, according to a report issued by Standard & Poor's. If not for the plastic skids on the floor bearing a sample run of a new bread product, this office could house an executive from almost any industry — drop ceiling, a tidy desk, and a flat-screen monitor streaming e-mail after e-mail at a lean, silver-haired man in a blazer.

“Len,” as he's called, is 58, and in his baking prime. He's also a straight shooter. When it comes to the source of Amoroso's uncanny allure, Len is quick to dismiss two widely held theories: first, that Philadelphia water makes better bread; and second, that his bakery has a secret recipe or formula handed down through the generations.

“I'm not sure I buy into that,” he tells me, palms open, diplomatic. “It's not about the water or even the formula, necessarily. It's about process — how long you mix your doughs, what temperature your doughs are at, all that stuff.”

Why is Len so willing to knock down the sacred cows of the Amoroso's bread cult? Part of it is that he simply doesn't like to bullshit, and part of it is a kind of macho awareness of just how unshakable Amoroso's brand position is. Nothing — not some magazine article, not Len himself — can stop Amoroso's customers from concocting reasons why their favorite bread is better than all the others. We've been believing Amoroso's marketing for so long that it's morphed into something much more than marketing. The superiority of the Amoroso's roll is part of our collective mental terrain, an article of faith to any true Philadelphia partisan. This faith is reinforced by the assembly-line consistency of the bread itself — that's what he's talking about. Consistency. You can fly out to California, bite into a cheesesteak, and experience a few perfect moments of hometown recognition.

It didn't happen overnight. Amoroso's conquest started locally in the late '40s, when Len's father, Leonard Amoroso Sr., and Len's uncle Daniel (Leonard's brother) got their bread into the Overbrook A&P. “Who's gonna buy Italian bread around here?” the manager asked, eyeing the Amorosos' puffy blond rolls. Overbrook was Jewish, and the A&P sold mostly rye. But Len Sr. was so confident, he said he'd buy back whatever didn't sell. The manager reluctantly agreed. Sure enough, rye-eating Overbrook took to South Philly's versatile bread that could frame a lunch-pail sandwich in the morning and be served oven-hot at the dinner table. The Amorosos soon had accounts from supermarkets all over the city. By 1960, they had bought a giant new plant in West Philadelphia. Soon, the brothers had pushed South Philly champ American Baking Company out of Acme by delivering bread straight to each store door — 12 to 18 hours fresher than ABC's.

From that point on, it was grow or die. No longer could the Amorosos ply the safe daily baker's trade. Len Jr. remembers his uncle Daniel spending his nights on a cot in the plant's basement, working around the clock to pay off the building's mortgage. No account was too distant or too small. Amoroso's agreed to drive to suburban supermarkets that no other Philly bakery would service, betting that development would eventually catch up with them. These new A&Ps, Penn Fruits, Acmes and Food Fairs became anchors, nodes in Amoroso's growing regional network. Drivers would service smaller accounts — restaurants, pizza shops and ­delicatessens — along the way.

“Our bread and butter” is what Len calls these neighborhood stores. They make up the majority of the 5,000 customers he serves today, and form the bedrock of the Amoroso's legend. For the first time, hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia mothers were all getting their bread from a single bakery, and that bakery took unprecedented pains to let them know it. Under the guidance of ad guru Mel Korn (a future VP at Saatchi & Saatchi), Amoroso's plastered its name and logo on trucks, signs, prepacked bags, and custom-made deli-counter bread bins. Long before point-of-sale displays became the most contested ground in the American supermarket, Amoroso's was making the most of every square inch of visual real estate. Korn bought up billboard space cheap and early, made a prescient deal with Wawa in the mid-'70s, and got bright green-and-red signage into the stores, drilling the brand into the heads of Philadelphia bread buyers who saw “Amor” and “Hearth,” and remembered the warm bundles grandmother used to bring back from the market. Their children would remember the name long after leaving Philadelphia.

As it grew, Amoroso's maintained the old baking ways where it could, eschewing commercial baking pans for traditional ­cornmeal-dusted wooden boards that expose rolls directly to the oven's heat, thus earning the appellation “hearth-baked.” But following World War II, the platonic ideal of a loaf of bread began to resemble a Twinkie — fluffier, sweeter, perpetual shelf life — and the Amorosos made some adjustments. The dough got lighter, easier for mouths and machines to handle. The crust got thinner. A touch of sugar was added to the salt-water-yeast-flour recipe of old, as were what Len calls “technical advances to help keep the product fresh” — preservatives, in other words. The result was an airy pocket of mollica wrapped in a thin yellow shell of a crust, something in between the encrusted roll of old and a spongy slice of Wonder Bread. This is the roll your sandwich comes on at Wawa, the roll that goes down as easy as vanilla ice cream yet retains a bit of wheat's tart, fruity flavor. The inside can go soft and gooey with delicious grease while the thin remains of the crusty Italian shell prevent collapse. Joey Vento of Geno's Steaks (who does not use Amoroso's, as he needs rolls baked to his specifications) calls this “a strong hinge,” the linchpin of cheesesteak physics.

And so was born the Amoroso's roll as we now know it. The product. It worked, and it's consistent.

I ask Len about its relation to the Philly breads of old.

“You want to sit down and have a nice loaf of bread for dinner? It's fabulous. But you know, the average person doesn't want to cut their gums on bread. Now, look” — he chooses his words carefully, to justify the route his company has chosen without denigrating the older ways — “nobody can make a product that everybody accepts, 'cause everybody's tastes are different. But we went for products that were … acceptable by more people.” This is the point where the bread purists scoff, because Len doesn't see his rolls as a shrine that must forever remain frozen in amber. As the times change, so does the bread, slowly, subtly, carefully tacking to the public's taste. That's all you need of a product on a grand scale; actually, that's exactly what you need in a product on a grand scale. The relationship between Len's family and his customers is constant — growing stronger, in fact, with each generation. Branding gets a boost when you can hark ever further back to what was.

Which brings us back to the Leveys, and the latest job of the Amoroso roll: ambassador. Over the past five years, corporate restaurateurs have started to realize that the American diner is suffering from “menu fatigue,” that deadly malaise of once again being forced to choose between a Caesar salad and 11 hamburgers with nicknames. National chains Johnny Rockets, Chili's and Applebee's all believe authentic Philly ­cheesesteaks served on authentic Amoroso rolls are part of the cure.

“Everybody's got the same old stuff,” says Amoroso's marketing director Charley Mallowe, who's had lines of restaurant buyers waiting to try a steak on his rolls at trade shows in Chicago and Vegas. “They love the simplicity of the cheesesteak. The meat's so thin, it cooks all the way through. You don't have to worry about somebody sending one back because it's not well-done.”

National customers have driven Amoroso's frozen sales up by 50 percent over the past three years, to the point where these rolls aren't baked in Philadelphia at all, but by a contractor in Vineland. Len says he's got the process down so that the product is identical no matter where it's baked, and there's no better proof than Bob Levey, who swears he's still eating the same bread he loved as a kid.

“They see that logo on our walls, and they know these steaks are gonna be right,” he says. “Our customers bite into our steaks, and before they even swallow it, they're like, ‘This is the real thing.'”

As Amoroso's has prospered, so have the Leveys. They now serve nearly 1.5 million flash-frozen Amoroso rolls a year at six Philly's Bests and 15 franchises. Their restaurant franchises are much more than restaurants. They're museums, consulates where the fires of brotherly love are rekindled. The Leveys' patrons bring in Pat's and Geno's t-shirts, police patches and license plates. In the morning, old-timers come in and order the breakfast of their youths — one Amoroso kaiser, sliced in half and buttered.

Levey does catering. He and Andrea have served steaks on Amoroso rolls to the casts of Six Feet Under, Scrubs, The O.C. Go to the back lot of any Hollywood sound stage, he says. It's all PA plates, Jersey plates. His customers. Len's customers. They may have driven across the country to make it in show business, but Hollywood hasn't made them forget that a real cheesesteak requires a real, hearth-baked Italian roll.

“They come into our place and it's like being back home,” Bob says. “And they can't remember bread being any other way.”